Friday, April 26, 2013

Cherchez la Femme

by Jeff C.


It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in." 
--Ursula K. Le Guinn, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"

So this doctor--Dr. T. has a Ph.D. and requires us to call her Dr. T. and requires all of us to refer to each other by our last names preceded by mister--is telling our classroom of prisoners: "I'm against allowing you to marry in here and propagate." This from the same woman who said being in prison "is just as normal as any life out there" outside of prison.

This was during weekend two of three in a volunteer self-betterment course on how to have Honorable Relationships. This Sunday's session was the one I'd been waiting on for two months. It was in January when I'd first met Dr. T. when the classroom started with 27 guys, not the now only seven of us--that she said, afterwards, was "an intentional culling."

Dr. T. is abrasive--she admits this. Abrasive I often don't mind. Abrasive can be interesting. Abrasive can scour down past the pristine politically over-correctness and, if backed by things like logic and avoids assholism for the sake of an entertaining reaction, abrasiveness can get at some deep, capital-T truths.

Because of my argumentative history I have a rather personal high tolerance, as both a giver and a receiver, for that sort of abrasiveness that grinds down past the seventh layer of skin like rock salt under a boot heel. So I could accept Dr. T.'s rough talk that didn't coddle. Besides, she's self-aware about it all, stating, "I have been known to make men cry--sorry." I saw her probe a husband and father, who was complaining about not being able to support his wife and kid, "Before you came in [to prison], did you contribute to your family--not just cash?" He didn't seem to know how to respond to this.

I had been waiting for the section on Intimate Relationships after wading through the rather obvious workbook sections on family, the workplace, and friends. I'd been waiting for two months to ask my two-month old question that was now a two-part question that seemed to go along with her opinion that guys in Washington State shouldn't be able to get trailer visits with their wives and have children--or rather, as she said, propagate.

Washington State is one of only two or three states that still have 24 or 48 hours conjugal visits. Or, in my case as an unmarried man, I have trailer visits with my Mom and my step-Dad and, separately, with my Dad. These trailer visits are intended to maintain strong, positive family connections so that, for example, guys like me who are getting out soon after doing what will have been 18.5 years, we're not, say, wretchedly uncouth. And it does feel like an escape from prison--though the trailers are behind the walls. But cooking together, as a family, is like nothing else. And certainly nothing else like the normal visiting room constant scrutiny.

My main question for Dr. T. was about her admonition two months ago that "none of you getting out should get in any relationships because I know how disastrous this can be." But she hadn't said for how long we should be alone. Or why.

Her initial answer to this only restated that us propagating was not a good thing. But, again, she did not say why. My friend, Atif, later informed me that this was a common belief--that we prisoners should not be allowed to have children. I was not aware--having only known about it directly from the guys who have fathered and raised their sons, daughters, and grandkids in these trailers and oftentimes having more contact with them, and certainly more positive contact, than many fathers not in prison have with their kids. Barbecuing, playing ball or other games, tickle- and water-fights, and even sometimes helping them with their homework.

But I tried again. I asked Dr. T. again to explain her admonition against us getting into relationships and why. Her answer was that she had "tracked four men for four years who'd served 20 years each and interviewed them multiple times" and she summarized that "women became the problem in all four instances."

Man #1 met a woman while in prison and got out and discovered her living conditions were so filthy that he didn't even stay there at all, despite a relationship being established already. Then he met a professional woman and prison advocate and became dependent on her, but "he started to feel used in her cause as a poster child." After a year with her he left, but he had lost his confidence and is now living with another professional woman and, Dr. T. said, "is being infantilized."

Man #2 put his wife that he married in prison through college, supported his step-daughter from age two to thirteen, but a year prior to his release his wife said she wanted a divorce because she was, Dr. T. said, suddenly afraid of him.

Man #3 was bipolar, ostracized, and bright, but after getting out of prison, he had trouble adjusting to life with the woman he married, who had been a volunteer in prison. He would, Dr. T. said, piss off the end of the bed as if he was still in prison with his toilet right there and he couldn't go grocery shopping because there were too many choices. And though he had an excellent job, he overdosed on heroin and died.

Man #4 was seduced by an officer and though she got fired they got married. But after being released, Dr. T. said, he once "grabbed the Alpha child" and was turned in for violence. Later he met another beautiful woman with children but she knew she had all the power and during an altercation she called the cops and he lost his good job.

But, to me, the retelling of those men's regressions was not helpful. Nor did it justify her dismissal of any of us having an honorable, intimate relationship.

When I asked her my follow-up question and almost insisted that she qualify her statement that we shouldn't get in relationships, she still wouldn't put a length of time to her ban. I even mentioned the Alcoholics Anonymous adage that if you feel like you're ready for a relationship once you're clean and sober you should get a plant--if you can keep it alive for a year then get a pet--if a year later it's still alive then, and only then, should you get in a relationship. But Dr. T. wouldn't agree with this or prescribe her own time limit before we should get involved with women. She just warned "how disastrous relationships with women would be," but otherwise she didn't seem to know how to respond to this further probing. But the impression I got from her wasn't that she was protecting our fragile and vulnerable psyches from the wiles of well-meaning and/or wild women. No, Dr. T. distinctly made me feel like she believed that we are broken men that time cannot heal--at least after all this hurtful time.

This attitude shouldn't bother me so much after so much time. I'm well aware of the negative attitudes towards all us prisoners, as if there were no distinctions between any of us. As if a felony--or at least a violent felony--meant that there was nothing human in us anymore. As if we were incapable of honor. And unworthy of intimate relationships.

But I'm not only all too aware of this attitude of people like Dr. T.; I perpetuate an even worse one towards myself.

My perpetual hope is that I'll be immune to all these negative attitudes and that when I get out I can, somehow, prove that I am distinct. That I am capable of more than dishonor. That I can be worthy of an intimate relationship.

All that sounds vaguely wistful, but the problem is that for far too long I've done merely that--hope that my future will be better than others. Hope without action. Hope as some sort of fog bank that lets you see what you want to see, but keeps you standing still. Hope that hides what you're afraid of unless you're willing to go bumbling along.


He'd known, once, what to do and feel around human beings."
--C.J. Cherryh, "Foreigner"

I don't know how to be around women anymore. I overanalyze and stand apart from myself, ever-gauging if what I'm saying, if what I'm expressing unconsciously with my body language, if what I'm touching with my gaze, is appropriate. Whether or not I'm offending, I'm objectifying, or even if I'm slightly discomforting. I am, again, an awkward adolescent.

When I was in middle and high school I didn't know how to be anything but awfully awkward around girls. From afar I was often so devoutly smitten with a girl that when standing in front of her I was whatever is two steps beyond merely self-conscious.

I had prescription-level acne and I was so embarrassed of my scrawny arms that I would only wear T-shirts that went past my elbows. Once, in a Grand Gesture to let a girl know I liked her, I sent her a dozen roses with only my phone number on it, and then, after begging my step-Dad to get off the phone and quit questioning her about why she was calling and asking who lived there, I had to explain who I was to her. In detail.

Another time, via the distancing, protective written word, I had a note passed to a girl actually asking, "Do you like me? Check Yes or No." Both of these examples were when I was fifteen.

But that immature, skinny boy blossomed in the Army and not only did the pimples recede, but I gained self-assurance to go along with my new unembarrassing body. Unfortunately I then immaturely overcompensated in "the land of beer and honeys," as my pack of friends and I called it, and dated almost every willing fraulein in Germany. But all that--and the flirting and just talking with woman--allowed the socially stunted shy boy that I was to thrive in confidence.

But then came prison.

And now almost the entirety of my every day existence is estrogen-free.

Oh, sure, there are a few female guards here. But personally I'm scared to be personal with them, or any guards, actually. It is all too easy to either get accused of being in a sexual relationship with a female guard or get accused of "compromising staff." And in here an accusation can cause the same reaction as being guilty. So in this state if you care at all about the privilege of remaining at the only prison close to your family, the only prison with ample single-man cells, the only prison with a collegiate atmosphere, you'd best not even think sideways at a female guard or "poof"--into the not-here ether you will go.

Proprietary jealousy from male guards that will flex their authority all over your life, anonymous prisoner lonesome jealously that will kite their suspicions into your central file, or an attitudinal shift from the female guard that for some reason no longer enjoys the added attention can all cause this reaction, this disappearing. So even if I were attracted to any of the women who work here I keep a professional distance from even the possible appearance of impropriety.

And as for what few other women there are with whom I come into contact, not only is that fear of being infracted, shipped out, and losing Good Time over a look or a misunderstood word ever-present from anybody with a pen, but with the programs in which I participate, I'd never want to put these women in jeopardy of losing their volunteer privileges. More importantly, though, I wouldn't want to risk making them feel uncomfortable in any way if I can help it.

Unlike others.

Yes, I've seen it happen, far too often. The crass attempt at a double entendre: as a volunteer takes off her sweatshirt to reveal an "I [heart] Seattle" T-shirt the loud, "I'm Seattle" declaration while staring, hard, at her lettering. The lecherous male gaze more penetrative of privacy than it is respectfully appreciative of beauty: as a teacher writes on the board the elbow into the ribs of his partner to giggly get a group ogling going. And the way of making every interaction as if it is only ever visual- and vocal-foreplay: as in saying something ostensibly innocuous but in a sleazy way, or the way an introduction or greeting becomes a blatant visual declaration of "I'm checking you out and I want you to watch me do it--and accept it."

I've seen our volunteers react in very different ways. The attempt to ignore and suppress the inappropriate: as a topic change or a continuing on as if the disrespect never happened and as if her sudden clenching jaw and brittle posture was natural. The refusal to wear any flattering clothing: as an attempt which not only goes far beyond the DOC orientation/indoctrination guidelines but seems designed to obscure all signs of femininity. And, on unfortunately rare occasions, the direct confrontational reproaches in which a volunteer declaratively demands that she will not tolerate such obvious rudeness: as when she states, "What I'm wearing is not a subject for class discussion."

My own reactions while witnessing these discourteous situations have ranged from empathetic unease when my own glaring at him to behave civilized doesn't work, irritation that makes me itch to intervene, or a desire to applaud when she calls him out on his disrespect.

Most of these situations arose from forced, intentional attempts to elicit a response. But I've also seen interactions with prisoners who have been locked up and away from women for too long cause unintended discomfort as well. And because of those all-too common situations I'm perhaps overly ever-wary of causing the same sort of cringe-inducing harassment. Mostly because my oh-so-clever wit has, on occasion, outrun my atrophied sense of appropriateness.

Because of this awareness, my wariness binds upon itself and accumulates into a skittish awkweirdness when confronted with the prospect of any sort of non-regular, personal, face-to-face contact with women. I feel uncomfortable, all too often.

What's so chilling about this is that the mature man I am now remembers what it was like to be socially stunted as a skinny teenager around girls I was afraid to talk to and then--after gaining the self-assurance and biceps that came with success in the Army--actually succeeding in talking and flirting quite well with actual, receptive women. But now I am, in some ways, startled, spooked, and scared by some women. Especially professional and/or attractive women. Even more so when alone with them.

Oh, I know why this is. But sometimes knowing isn't enough to slap all the stupid outta me.

This beyond-nervousness dwarfs those intense little feelings that used to pock my acned youth. I get caught in a mental echo feedback loop of worry about saying the inappropriate thing, then worrying about whether my worry is warranted. Or showing.

But what's really distressing is that this wariness drifts into my friendships with women outside of prison. I catch myself overly hesitant to broach certain subjects or say certain things. And I wonder if this skittishness will undercut all my future relationships.

Because, to be sure, like a teenage at an all-boys, or perhaps reform, school, I'm sure I've spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating being in an intimate relationship. So much time that it may not have been healthy.


“Not until we're totally crushed do we show what we're made of."
--Bohumil Hrabal, "Too Loud a Solitude”

Over 14 years ago, when I was at the penitentiary in Walla Walla, there was a teacher there who said something that stuck with me. She said that guys in prison typically come to think of women in one of two ways: as all bitches that they objectify and vilify, or as angels that they put on a pedestal and daydream about. At the time she said this I had an old girlfriend who was a new fiancee that I believed was going to stick with me and wait for me during all my time--this was before I'd learned about, or was eligible for, the trailer visiting program. I joked with my fiancee about what this teacher said and even crafted an elaborate drawing of my fiancee's name, atop a Corinthian pedestal with fluting and flueronic detailing.

About a year later that joke wasn't funny anymore when my fiancee disappeared from my life without even a "Dear John" missive fired from the ether. But neither prison nor my hurt and painfully slow emotional recovery made me into a misogynist.

No, instead, many television years later, I eventually tried to insinuate myself in a romantic relationship with almost every pen-pal that gave me any sort of friendship. I was, again, easily infatuated and continually trying to lay the groundwork for something more than what I thought of then as mere friendship. As if all my elaborately decorated envelopes and brutally long letters would make her magically want more than a friendship.

One woman, in particular, got to me so pervasively that I almost couldn't take it. Many frustrated months of journaling later, I, eventually, simply had to make my big, awkward Grand Gesture which, of course, failed so miserably that it ruined the friendship. But that's to be expected when you compile all the diary extracts and uncensored emotional ventings about the irregularity of intercontinental mail and ambiguities in the friendship and send them to her as some sort of "proof" of how much she affects you. Oh, I was ugly. Brutal. Immature. And, sadly, hurtful.

But that's what happened to me as a result of all this time secluded from the full spectrum of society. Well, one of the things that happened to me. I'm not claiming such things happen to everyone who has to do a grip o' time, but I do see, on many of us who have, that dichotomy. Some of us try to hold up some woman as the panacea for all our ailments and others yell, curse, and hang-up on the women who love them--and then call them right back up, collect. And, sadly, they accept.

What I personally cannot accept, though, is that bipolar dichotomy being my only two opposing options for my future. I want to view women as they are, not as caricatured vessels into which I can pour all my issues.

Last year I confessed most of this to one of my friends--via the distancing, protective written word, but of course. I explained, in detail, my desire to build an emotional relationship with one willing woman through sharing and honest revelations about our pasts as a way of laying some foundation to then build a relationship on when I get out. She suggested that I should focus on other things. Instead of clinging to that off chance, I should focus on getting out, getting employed, and bettering myself. Fair enough, of course. But even though I know that this decade-long desire to build a friendship into potentially something more is based on my monstrous hate of the waste of my time in prison, I get her concern, even if I'm not convinced self-betterment and a desire to have an intimate relationship are mutually exclusive.

But after so many years of suppressing most meaningful, even just beyond professional and merely friendly, face-to-face contact with women maybe it's natural to cling to anything that might allow me to deal with this impending world-shift. This transition that is going to evoke some freakishly doubleplusuncool feelings. Maybe it's natural to dream, to hope, to even better yourself for that off chance of starting life while in this time-out from it.

Because when I'm suddenly thrust into a world with not 1.5 but 51 percent of women, I fear that I'll often feel like a slack-jawed, unblinking, guileless goof. Like being merely off-kilter is an attitude to aspire to. At least until my confidence heals. Assuming it's not all stigmatized scar tissue.

The thing that has helped me far, far more than any seminar on how to have an honorable relationship, of course, is the fact that I'm now able to have women friends. I no longer see each as a potential wife, if given the right specific circumstances, if I continue to read into any compliment that I can then pet bald. Strangely--in that it's new for me--I can actually enjoy my friendships with women without expecting or hoping for more. That might not seem like much, but for in here, for me, that's a world-shift in itself. And I have, now, perhaps as a result of this attitude, some amazing friends.

Not that I'm fully healed or immune to sporadic flare-ups of emphatic doubt around women in prison, but like those first ten thousand struggling push-ups for a scrawny boy, every little bit helps. And bumbling along in every healthy friendship not motivated by agendarosity, and even in every abrasive seminar, is better than simply blindly hoping that the future will be better.

---April 2013

Jeff C.


Bonnie said...


Because I have been somewhat of a tough critic of yours in the past, I thought it only right that I give you two thumbs up for "Cherchez la Femme". I found this essay very well written. Allowing your vulnerabilities to show does not make you a weak person. Your insecurities around women allows the reader to see you as a very real human being. We all have these same type of situations to work through in our lives. The fact that you realize what lies ahead for you makes you more attractive then those who put on the "player" persona and try to execute without a real plan. Good for you Jeff!

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Jeff Conner:

Thank you very much, Bonnie, for your kind words about "Cherchez la Femme" and me. I appreciate you taking the time to encourage me to continue revealing myself, to continue humanizing myself. I only hope that other readers will see themselves in those of us who write for MB6 and realize how much we all have in common. That, in itself, may not solve all our problems and bridge all our political differences, but it might get us seeing each other, as you said, "as a very real human being."

I certainly am well aware that I'm not like the typical "player" persona that swaggers his way among the safety of the group (in here or out of prison), but it's always nice to get encouragement--and if it comes from "a tough critic" like you, all to the better. Again, thank you for your comment. I truly appreciate it.

Sincerely, Jeff

Anonymous said...

As a woman friend of Jeff's, I am proud to call him my friend! He is as goofy as I am and we share long letters with many subjects and topics discussed

You wrote a wonderful piece in 'Cherchez la Femme' Jeff which does expose you, the real you, not the one who maybe wants to hide behind a mask sometimes because of past experiences! Am I causing you to blush now?


A Friend said...

The following comment is from Jeff Conner:

To my goofy and wonderfully accented friend, Lucy: thank you so very much for noticing within me what my scratched self-esteem sometimes cannot see. It's a joy to have a real, true friend in you. Talk to you again soon. Your (mildly) blushing friend--for being "outed" as goofy (sheesh, Lucy, nobody knew that about me, I'm sure...until now--there goes my hard core bad ass convict reputation), Jeff :)